In which we have a look at this week's
New York Times Book Review.
Fiction & Poetry
Ishmael Reed's New and Collected Poems, 1964-2006 is the
subject of Joel Brouwer's review. Given a full page, Mr Brouwer does a nice job
of framing a context for the contentious poet, and quotes enough verse to give a
sense of what fuller exposure to Mr Reed's work might be like. Of a passage from
"I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra," Mr Brouwer writes,
Such a crazy quilt of references can be frustrating - my
literature students frequently declare themselves equally bewitched by the
poem's sounds and bewildered by its content - but it is an accurate
reflection of our multifarious planet, where conflicts between nations,
cultures, religions, classes, races and genders are not likely ever to be
fully reconciled, but can at least be made less deadly through tolerance of
difference. Reed's best poems conjure up a vertiginous, multiplicious,
irresolvable and thrilling world. It looks a lot like ours.
Five novels are reviewed this week, and I must say that the reviews are a
dispiriting lot. Erica Wagner tries hard to say just why she doesn't like Andrea
Lee's Lost Heart in Italy, but conveys nothing more than her own
But I kept wondering why I was bothering with these people, and
why the author kept feeling the need to drive her points, such as they are,
home so firmly.
It's possible for a novel - and unfortunately, this is just such a novel
- to be both too particular, and not particular enough.
As the literary editor of the Times of London, Ms Wagner ought to have
declined this assignment, the tone of which I'm sure that she had settled within
the first ten pages of Ms Lee's novel. Terrence Rafferty does even less justice
to By A Slow River, by Philippe Claudel (translated by Hoyt Rogers).
Everything that he doesn't like about the novel enough to quote it looks to me
like the sort of thing that, while it sounds gaseous in English, tends to come
naturally to French discourse.
Claudel's novel occupies a kind of misty no man's land between
serious fiction and pulp.
Not a helpful
remark at all. Sven Birkerts likes Ivan Doig's The
Whistling Season, but - as is often the case with this reviewer -
he gets lost in his own preoccupations with irony and candor, and with the
supposed simplicity of life in the high plains. A review that praises an
author's language ought to boast an extensive example, and I sincerely hope that
there is more to Mr Doig's story than Mr Birkerts indicates.
The two novels that get more sympathetic reviews are
English, August: An Indian Story, by
Upamanyu Chatterjee, and Peter Robinson's Piece of
My Heart. The latter, reviewed by Jim Windolf, is the latest in a
series of police procedurals that feature Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks,
"a policeman with a melancholic streak working under the North Yorkshire Major
Crimes unit." It looks to me as though this full-page review is designed to push
Mr Robinson into the ranks of Ian Rankin and Barbara Vine as a writer of Major
League Entertainment. Mr Windolf writes more about the series than about the
novel at hand, although he does say that it "succeeds" as a mystery, and, for
all that he has to say about the character of DCI Banks, a was unable to develop
a corresponding picture. Having pointed out that English, August was
first published almost twenty years ago, to great acclaim, in India, Akash Kapur
jumps into the problematics of identity faced by any Indian writer writing in
English while continuing to live in India. Both reviews, then, while favorable,
are essentially distracted from the task at hand.
As an admirer of Cynthia Ozick, I was not best pleased by
Walter Kirn's making sly fun of her, in his review of her latest collection,
The Din in the Head: Essays, but I had to admire the skill with which he
takes her high regard for standards and canons, and her belief in the power of
the novel, and makes them look faintly absurd, or at least very old-fashioned.
The image of the novelist as a species of intellectual royalty,
administering vast realms of mental space with absolute, divine authority
while resisting the claims of social relevance and popular amusement,
reappears in a number of the essays, and always as something to be revered
and mourned rather than archaeologically inspected. ... The novelist-emperor
calls forth his subjects from his own mysterious depths, like Jove; he
doesn't depend on found materials. His inventions don't reflect life, they
create it, and the culture's growing doubt that such a feat is possible are
a tragic measure of its diminishment.
In short: not a good review (shame, Mr Kirn!) but a lot of fun.
Ana Marie Cox, leveling much the same charge (she's old-fashioned) against Katha
Pollitt's Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our
Time, is amusing in a wry, self-aware manner.
But the first thing I thought when I read Pollitt deride the
false consciousness of pick-ectomy patients (okay, maybe not the first) was
"Does it really work?" While I hesitate to consider myself representative
(and no, I would never actually do it), the ability to hold a
predilection for stilettos and support for abortion rights in one's head
simultaneously seems suggestive of today's compromised, complicated feminist
Stephen Prothero is impatient with J C Hallman's The Devil Is a Gentleman:
Exploring America's Religious Fringe. He faults the author for doing what he
set out to do, and not doing more, in the form of analysis.
Readers will learn that UFO believers are happy and that
Satanists are actually quite nice - as a rule, Hallman is generous to his
subjects - but they will learn nothing about how America's religious fringe
is both sewn into and tugging against the garment of American Christianity.
As the chairman of the religion department at Boston University, Mr Prothero's
complaint is unsurprising. But the editors of the Book Review ought to
have sized up Mr Hallman's book as the travelogue that it seems to be, not the
comparative study that Mr Prothero regrets.
Norah Vincent's deeply unsympathetic review of
Seminary Boy, by John Cornwell, is enough to make you
wonder why the publisher went to the trouble to print it. Eloquent about the
book's deficiencies, Ms Vincent finds only one or two attractions in Mr
Cornwell's account of five years in a Roman Catholic seminary. Her insistence on
the kind of book that Mr Cornwell ought to have written is
Insight is the linchpin of a spiritual coming-of-age memoir like
this. Keen, unflinching insight into abstruse matters of the soul, and this
is especially true when we are talking of a journey as singular and strange,
as vehemently insular, as Cornwell's. If the writer cannot give us that - if
he cannot explain in sufficiently considered detail how he went from being
an under-age East London thug, who took part in the gang-molestation of a
girl and threw bricks at the windows of passing trains, to fervently
declaring a vocation to the priesthood at 13 - then he is wasting words.
Perhaps Mr Cornwell felt that it was enough to set down the details of his
"singular and strange" journey without cluttering them with interpretation. I'm
not sure that I'd disagree.
Timesman Serge Schmemann believes that Geoffrey Hosking, author
of Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet
Union, ought to have ventured some prognostication about Russia's
imperial future: will it have one? This despite the fact that Mr Hosking's book
"builds a strong and authoritative argument that the Soviet Union was both
Russian and anti-Russian." In other words, the book is not about Russia's
David Thomson, the noted film metacritic, is so interested in
the figure of Upton Sinclair that he cannot be bothered to discuss Radical
Innocent: Upton Sinclair, by Anthony Arthur, or
Upton Sinclair and the
Other American Century, by Kevin Mattson.
We have two new biographies on the table, beggingly lean and
artfully digested, as if the publishers had told their authors: "Show some
moderation. Pick out the high points. If we get a hundred kids to look at
The Jungle, we'll have done honor by the old boy. How's your burger?"
Both Anthony Arthur's and Kevin Mattson's books are reasonable in length and
tempered in passion. Pushed to choose, I prefer Arthur's. But to feel the
wonderful nut and enthusiast in Sinclair, the intrigued newcomer should read
The Jungle or King Coal. Then realize that this author was a
very good and ardent tennis player. Eight thousand words a day and three
sets - with no tie breakers.
I doubt that
Mr Arthur or Mr Mattson will be grateful for Mr Thomson's attention.
James Carroll's House of War: The Pentagon and the
Disastrous Rise of American Power gets a sympathetic review from Michael
Tomasky. He takes the book for what it's meant to be: an argument about the
moral consequences of armed intervention in other people's problems. The son of
a general who was the first head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Mr Carroll
grew up playing in the Pentagon occasionally, but his opposition to the war in
Vietnam pitted him against his father. (It would appear that this book, like
Constantine's Sword, is a mélange of the personal and the objective.) The
Pentagon is the symbol as well as the fount of American belligerence (whenever
the nation is at war), and Mr Carroll questions the morality of its foundations.
Learned, intelligent and thoroughly researched, House of War
should be read and taken seriously by those who will disagree with its
argument and who are too sure of the righteousness of their views. One can't
help wishing at the same time that Carroll were a little less sure of the
righteousness of his.
The most favorable
review in this week's issue begins on the cover. Bruce Barcott writes glowingly
of Cross Country: Fifteen Years and Ninety Thousand
Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a Lot of Bad
Motels, a Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-in-Law, Two
Kids, and Enough Coffee to Kill and Elephant, by Robert Sullivan.
I had a hard time getting into the spirit of the review, because I don't share
the reviewer's enthusiasm about Mr Sullivan's view of America:
The America that I see is an America that tells you to keep
moving, to move on to something better, to get on the road and keep going,
to stop only briefly to refuel your car and yourself but then to keep
pushing toward the place that is closer to where you should be, or could be,
if only you would keep going. American says move, move on, don't sit still
... In other words, America is the road.
A lot of Mr Barcott's review parallels the material covered in Cross Country,
instead of judging Mr Sullivan's treatment of it, so aside from telling us that
Mr Barcott likes the book, the review sheds little light on it. Which is too
bad; I'd have liked the most favorable review of the week to tell me more about
the book. And to have been about something other than depressing hours wasted in
a car on America's largely featureless highways.
This leaves two books about strange characters and a volume
devoted to leatherback turtles. David Quammen follows this week's prevailing
trend by wishing that Carl Safina's Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the
Earth's Last Dinosaur were a different, more rousing book.
I would like to be able to tell you that this is a riveting
nature book for hardheaded, skeptical people of broad interest who,
ordinarily, would never read a nature book. Instead I can merely assure you
that it contains some potent facts and some very nice turtles.
Sharing the same page are Polly Morrice's largely favorable
review of Stuart: A Life Backwards,
by Alexander Masters, and Sarah Ferrell's bemused review of Helen Reddy's
The Woman I Am: A Memoir. Miss Reddy, a
former pop star, has taken up Reincarnation, and Ms Ferrell says that her
chapter about how Richard III came back as the Duchess of Windsor is
"not-to-be-missed." Ms Morrice does not tell us why the intelligent son of
American writers would befriend a catastrophically damaged Englishman - muscular
dystrophy was the least of Stuart Shorter's problems - but she expects that most
readers "will appreciate Masters's moving portrait." Perhaps I should say
something gratuitously negative about this book, because I'd be delighted to
have Mr Masters ask me to read it and discover the error of my ways, as three
authors have done since I began reviewing the Review.
According to John Thorn's Essay, "Take Me Into the Ballgame,
"hardly any" of the countless books of "imaginative writing about baseball"
have been good. He excepts Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and Robert
Coover's Universal Baseball Association, Inc, J Henry Waugh, Prop: these
two novels, instead of deforming the game into a source of metaphors, really
describe playing baseball. True, baseball in the Coover book is played indoors,
at a table, with dice, by a single player - an insanely prescient forecast of
today's computer games.